Cambridge by Susanna Kaysen

Image from S. Krishna’s Books

From the author of Girl, Interrupted (yeah the one that was turned into a movie starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie), comes a book about, well, girlhood. Susanna Kaysen’s novel, Cambridge, features a protagonist named, surprisingly-yet-unsurprisingly, Susanna. Susanna is an elementary-school-aged girl growing up in 1950s Cambridge, Massachusetts. Susanna is whisked away by her parents time and time again during her childhood, much to her chagrin. A year in London here, some time in Italy there, summers in the Cape intermingled, and then a disastrous few months of Grecian living thereafter.

Sounds pretty exciting, right? Well, not to Susanna. All Susanna wants is for everything to be boring and the same. For her to remain in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for her to always have the same nanny, for her naïveté to remain that way for all time, and for her to never go through puberty. Susanna has a gift for only seeing the worst in every situation. Delighting in mediocrity and anonymity, preferring to remain ignorant and sullen than do what it takes to shine or learn the patience to see the best in a situation.She’s basically like the preteen Negative Nancy. This idea is cemented when, after years of being one of the worst students in her classes (but never the absolute worst), she arrives at an international school in Greece to find – to her horror – that she’s top of the class. She knows that she comes from a better background, that she’s had an upbringing unlike any of her classmates’, and that’s just not okay.

As I was reading Cambridge, my thought was that it was a lighthearted look into one small schoolgirl’s descent into depression. But, after reading some reviews on the novel, I started to think that that was just me putting myself in Susanna’s shoes. The only excuse for me to be that okay with mediocrity, that uninterested in my surroundings would be for me to be deeply, deeply depressed. She spent months living in a contessa’s villa in Italy and had all of Florence at her fingertips, for crying out loud!

With all of that in mind, I’m a little confused by what this novel aimed to accomplish over the course of its 270-some-odd pages. The shared name with the author suggests it’s a memoir, which I’m assuming is secretly the case. I did some research after deciding that Susanna – the character – seemed deeply depressed and possibly slightly off/disturbed. Susanna Kaysen – the author – underwent psychiatric treatment for about 2 years when she was 18. I can only assume that this is meant to be the best-selling therapy project to get the author in touch with her roots. And, I should mention, totally worth the read if you enjoy child psychology, mentions of historical places, or even just really love Debbie Downer or SNL – she and Susanna are basically twins.